Russia was not a liberal democracy under Yeltsin, and neither has it reverted to totalitarianism under Putin. But America's long-established religiously inspired concern about "losing" Russia is once more at the centre of debateby Stephen Kotkin / April 27, 2008 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2008 issue of Prospect Magazine
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What is it about Russia that drives the Anglo-American world mad? Soviet communism collapses, the empire is relinquished. Then come the wild hopes and failures of the 1990s—including the 1993 half-coup and the tank assault on Russia’s legislature, the results-adjusted referendum on a new constitution (still in force), the dubious privatisations, the war in Chechnya and the financial default in 1998. But after all that, in December 1999 Boris Yeltsin apologises, steps down early—and names his prime minister and former secret police chief Vladimir Putin as acting president. To widespread consternation, Yeltsin predicts that the obscure spy is the man to “unite around himself those who will revive Great Russia.” Incredibly, this is exactly what transpires.
And this is a grand disappointment, even a frightening prospect? The elevation of Putin—a secret deal promoted by Yeltsin’s personal and political family, motivated less by patriotism than self-preservation—will go down as one of the most enduring aspects of Yeltsin’s shaky legacy. Now, Putin, just like his benefactor, has selected his successor, Russia’s new president Dmitri Medvedev. Sure, Putin has no plans to retire to a hospital-dacha, where Yeltsin had spent much of his presidency. Still, in his crafty way Putin has abided by the constitutional limit of two presidential terms. In May, Medvedev will acquire the immense powers of the Russian presidency (a gift of Yeltsin) in circumstances whereby the Russian state is no longer incoherent (a gift of Putin). And this is grounds for near universal dismissal in the west?
Two clashing myths have opened a gulf of misunderstanding towards Russia. First is the myth in the west that the chaos and impoverishment under Yeltsin amounted to a rough democracy, which Putin went on to destroy. When something comes undone that easily, it was probably never what it was cracked up to be. Still, the myth of Russia’s overturned democracy unites cold war nostalgists, who miss the enemy, with a new generation of Russia-watchers, many of whom participated earnestly in the illusory 1990s democracy-building project in Russia and are now disillusioned (and tenured).